‘This is the border’: Dublin Port, Ireland’s ground zero for Brexit

“There are your sandwiches from Marks & Spencer’s,” says Dublin PortCompany chief executive Eamonn O’Reilly, pointing to one of the supermarket chain’s food lorries as it roars past.

The lorry is one of dozens to pour out of the bow doors of the Ulysses, the Irish Ferries vessel, shortly before 6am at Dublin Port. Forty-five minutes earlier, the ferry arrived from Holyhead. In less than two hours, at 7.57am, it will depart again for Holyhead and repeat the journey later that afternoon and evening.

The trucks – roll-on, roll-off or “ro-ro” traffic as they are known in the port – carry the branding of the country’s best-known retailers. They arrive long before most of their customers wake up.

“This is the economy on the move,” says Michael Sheary, the port’s financial controller, standing next to O’Reilly as they watch the noisy spectacle of a pre-daybreak port running at full throttle.

Both men wear hard hats and high-vis bibs. In the early morning darkness at the busiest port on the island, it is important to be seen at the busiest time of the day, particularly as the last containers are taken off the ferries. Drivers spin in revolving driving seats in lorry cabs, shuttling backwards and forwards at speed to haul unaccompanied trailers off the Ulysses.

The convoy spilling out of the ferry includes everything from refrigerated lorries or “reefers” to second-hand car transporters and horse trucks.

“That’s one of the checks that will have to happen because of Brexit: live animals,” says O’Reilly of one of four horse transporters he counts driving off the Ulysses.

This is Ireland’s ground zero for Brexit, the front line on a new border for the European Union with the United Kingdom. Dublin Port will be the State’s single busiest outpost for customs checks and border inspections should Britain depart the EU on schedule on March 29th.

O’Reilly and his team manage a working area more than a third of the size of the Phoenix Park. He calls the narrow stretch of water at the mouth of the port between the North Bull Lighthouse on the northside of Dublin and Poolbeg Lighthouse the “gate to the economy”. It is only wide enough to accommodate one ship at a time. Almost 90 per cent of the “ro-ro” road freight coming on and off the island on ships passes through this 330m gap.

“This is the border – you’ve seen the border!” the port chief declares, standing on a dock as he brings The Irish Times on a tour of the 760-acre site as it ramps up preparations for Brexit in 69 days’ time.

Just 20 minutes after the Ulysses doors opened, the ship has emptied its load over two ramps into the port. The ferry has the capacity to carry more than 4km of trucks in its lanes.

This is only part of the morning traffic at the port. In one hour, between 4.25am and 5.30am, four ferries carrying up to 13 lane-kilometres of lorries and other heavy goods vehicles arrive from Holyhead and Liverpool on vessels operated by P&O Ferries, Seatruck, Stena Line and Irish Ferries. All told, there were 48 ship “movements” on the day of our visit, a typical daily number for the port.

Half of the lorries driving off the 5.16am Ulysses left the port within minutes of driving off its ramps. They head via the Dublin Port Tunnel for the M50 ring-road around Dublin and beyond.

“They’ll all head out the tunnel before the rush hour. The reason the ferries come in at this time? These customers,” explains O’Reilly, pointing to the lorries, “that’s when they want to hit the road.”

There are no delays now because on freight from the UK there are no checks, customs, regulatory or otherwise. All this is due to change at 11pm on March 29th. Few are certain about what the changes will bring because of the political uncertainty in London and the UK parliament’s rejection of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement this week, but the port will be forced to manage, deal or no deal.

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